Read the third instalment of our speakers’ reflections.

In anticipation of our Autumn Conference, taking place on 24 November, our speakers share their reflections of learning from the past six months, and predictions of challenges and opportunities ahead for HE Professionals. In this blog Clive and Tom discuss the challenges and opportunities around working practices and the continuing need to support colleagues.

Clive Betts
Head of People Development | University of Exeter

What learning are you taking from the last six months?

The last six months fully inform my session but my aim is to challenge some assumptions and perceptions with a view to enabling positive action going forward. For example, to cope with the changes in our sector many staff have been asked to adjust their work priorities to enable them to work in different areas (e.g. to help UG/PG Admissions). While this is often sold as a development opportunity people can be left feeling insecure, sensing their old career may no longer be relevant and their old job unimportant. How do people develop the resilience to cope with this as well as use this to their advantage to become more agile to adapt to future change?

What are the biggest challenges coming up and what does this tell us about where our focus should be right now?  

Undoubtedly the biggest challenge is the balance of “new” and “old” ways of working, whether that is remotely instead of in-person or using technology to replace people. While I will show that this challenge has surfaced repeatedly over the decades only now is UK HE having to confront the challenges this brings to its employees. 

What do you consider to be the opportunities for HE Professionals?  

HE is often viewed by other sectors as being old-fashioned and sluggish in its ways. Important areas like HR and Finance have often been left behind with archaic processes and poor use of technology solutions while other areas are beset with resourcing issues and constant re-structuring to try and cut costs and improve efficiency. But, as a sector, we are having to catch up rapidly and learn from others along the way. This is producing a new workforce with up-to-date digital skills, lean approaches to projects and creative ways to solve problems. While agility may bring uncertainty to peoples’ jobs our future workforce will have a range of skills that will enable them quickly excel in a far wider range of careers than many other sectors that are more mature and fixed in their operations. 

Clive will be delivering working session 201 The “new normal” for development: neither new nor normal! at our Autumn Conference.

Tom West
Head of Operations | University of Liverpool

What learning are you taking from the last six months?

The main lesson for me has been how, despite all our intensive planning and forecasting, none of us predicted or anticipated this situation, and yet our staff (and students) have proved to be endlessly adaptable and resilient in the face of change on an unparalleled scale. Essentially, we’re not as good at planning and controlling the future as we tend to think we are (as both individuals and organisations) but we’re far better at adapting and responding to unforeseen events than we expect.

There are lots of well researched reasons why we tend to view the future as more predictable than it really is, but one of the consequences is that we plough endless time into planning on a ‘micro-level’, and when a real crisis hit, much of that detailed planning proved useless because it couldn’t scale quickly enough to remain relevant to the magnitude of events as they unfolded. What suddenly mattered most was how well we could trust our staff, delegate responsibility, and create order from chaos. Suddenly ‘good enough really was good enough’. Our rapid adaptation had to happen at the macro level and on previously unthinkable timescales. We learned that much of our old ‘hyper-vigilant’ planning culture simply sucked time, which returned little material benefit in a crisis. What matters most is how much we invested in the ‘preparedness’ of our staff and equip, trust and empower them to do what they do well, no matter the circumstances. 

What are the biggest challenges coming up and what does this tell us about where our focus should be right now?

I said previously that it appeared that our staff and students proved ‘endlessly adaptable and resilient in the face of change’ and this has been true up to now, however we know that none of us have limitless resilience or resources. Therefore, the biggest challenge that I see on the horizon is how to support, encourage, equip and resource our staff, who are physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted and at the outer edge of their ability to cope. To do this against a backdrop of severe financial constraint (we can’t throw money at the problem, as we have none to throw) and within an environment of perpetual uncertainty and sustained ‘threat’ (we can’t say ‘don’t worry it will all be over be XX date’) is perhaps the greatest challenge the sector has faced in decades. Coupled with political unease and growing student dissatisfaction the outlook appears ominously bleak. Therefore, we need to focus on supporting staff as they come up against ‘the 6 month wall’ and help them over it with an empathic recognition that we are, quite literally, all in this together. Emotional and psychological support should no longer be seen as a tertiary intervention when staff ‘reach crisis point’ but as a primary, underpinning support structure which is woven into the fabric of the new structures and culture we rebuild. 

What do you consider to be the opportunities for HE Professionals?

The challenges we face represent a critical opportunity to shift our thinking and practice away from a 19/20th century ‘command and control’ hierarchical model in which we pull levers to produce performance, into a more evidence-driven approach to organisational motivation. This will require us to devolve more responsibility, along with scarce resources to enable teams to adapt and deliver in their local context with lower centralised control coupled with higher trust and expectations. We have an opportunity to free ourselves from outdated corporate models of managing and measuring performance and to explore genuinely creative and innovative ways of structuring and supporting our teams.

During the mass migration of staff to home working most managers (myself included!) suddenly had no choice but to trust their staff, and many of us have realised what we knew intuitively all along, that the vast majority of staff want to do the best possible job, if they are appropriately trained, equipped and supported. And that those few who may find ways to abuse the freedom that home-working brings, were never working hard in the office anyway… The technology exists to support these new ways of working, but our thinking and practices, and in some cases our structures and cultures need to adapt quickly so that we don’t end up trying to squeeze a new, fluid working model into an old, rigid framework which no longer fits. 

Tom will be presenting working session 202 Predictably unpredictable – why we’re so bad at forecasting the future, and what we can do about it at our Autumn Conference.

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